In the north-west of England in the Lancashire village of Kirkham, somewhere between Preston and Blackpool, is Mill Farm Sports Village.
Opened in August 2016, it is the home of National League side AFC Fylde and will this Saturday be one of the many venues looking to attract increased crowds for the annual celebration that is Non-League Day.
Fylde’s stadium is the centre-piece of a well-developed area architected by an ambitious non-league football club led by an ambitious chairman.
It boasts a five-star hotel offering views of a pristine pitch, which saw an almost-perfect league campaign last season, before the promotion push was halted in the play-off final at Wembley Stadium. Pre-match supporters can enjoy a drink in Bradley’s Sports Bar, a 290-capacity venue boasting 35 sports-oriented televisions.
The whole area helps to not only epitomise how far the club has come, but more importantly where they want to get to.
The club, formerly known as Kirkham & Wesham, owes a debt of gratitude to the investment of chairman David Haythornthwaite, who has been the impetus behind Fylde’s ascendancy.
A banner in the adjacent terrace to the 2000-capacity West Stand proclaims the repeatedly chanted ‘twenty-twenty-two’ vision that is now the impetus of AFC Fylde, the backbone of the direction Haythornthwaite has steered them towards. It is also adorned on the players’ shirts.
“About 12 years ago we were just an amateur village team,” chief executive Jamie Roberts explains to The Sportsman: “Then our current chairman took over the club and declared the intention to become part of the Football League in 15 years. As is the way with these things, people scoffed and laughed.
“The first thing we wanted was to build a fanbase, which required the name change.
“We moved four years ago to this purpose-built stadium. At the moment it holds 4250 spectators. Once the area behind the goal has been finished, that’ll take the capacity up to 6000.
“What goes on on the pitch we can’t affect, but everything else is Premier League quality.
“I didn’t build this place, it’s not my money, but I am so proud of it. I remember when I first visited it, when I didn’t work for the club, and I walked in and thought ‘This is like being in Dubai.’”
The club had been formed in 1988 and spent its early history languishing around the West Lancashire Football League. But then Haythornthwaite arrived in 2007.
Earlier this year AFC Fylde became the first club in English football history to collect both the FA Vase and the FA Trophy. They won the Vase in 2008 while still in their previous guise, beating Lowestoft Town 2-1 at Wembley. Last May they travelled back to the national stadium to defeat National League champions Leyton Orient in the Trophy final just a week after losing the play-off final to Salford City at the same venue.
The Coasters’ battle with Salford guaranteed the Football League a brand-new club, with neither having previously graced the professional leagues. The Ammies, backed by a consortium of former Manchester United footballers, got over the line on the day to complete a highly-publicised run through the divisions which had seen them earn four promotions in five seasons.
Despite having missed out in May, Roberts reveals that Fylde’s aspirations for their footballing future remain ambitious:
“The club is still building year-by-year, we make small improvements every season. Little by little we’re moving on and making the club even more professional and being able to compete at any level.
Eventually we hope to head to League One. You may think there’s a ceiling for this type of football club but Burton Albion managed to reach the Championship, Bournemouth got to the Premier League.
Manager Dave Challinor is now in his ninth season at the helm, having been at the club since 2011. To put this into perspective, only one Football League manager can currently claim to have a longer tenure. Even then, Morecambe’s Jim Bentley bests Challinor by just six months.
Challinor has overseen three promotions, the first in his debut season. When he took over, Fylde were in the Northern Premier League Division One North, the eighth tier of the Football League pyramid. They’re now one tier away from becoming an EFL club.
Affable and seemingly undaunted by the challenges of first achieving league football and then succeeding in it, Challinor helped to explain the rapid progress of the club and his own longevity as manager:
“I suppose success is the secret of success. We’ve moved through the divisions, and ultimately over a long period of time you built up a trust at the club and I think that continuity has helped us really move forward. The transition between being a part-time non-league club to a full-time professional club in a different ground, which is a fantastic new stadium with state-of-the-art facilities.
“It has been a really good journey and hopefully one that will continue.”
When Challinor was appointed, Fylde were still five years away from moving into their state-of-the-art stadium.
“My first game was at [previous ground] Kellamergh Park with about 150 people watching,” he adds. “We’ve built as a football club. We’ve gone from that to all of a sudden coming to an unbelievable new stadium and averaging around 2000 fans in the first season.
“We’ve probably now got a core group of 1400. Some of them have been with us from the start, others have only ever known Mill Farm.
“But at any non-league club, the fans and volunteers are the soul of the club, and we knew that moving to a stadium like this would change the dynamic of it a little bit because it does become a little bit more corporate in terms of the personnel you have here. Fortunately we still have that core group of supporters.
“The fans are everything.”
Roberts, the former head of operations at Wigan Athletic, is full of praise for his man in the dugout: “I cannot tell you how highly I rate him. I’ve worked with some outstanding managers, I’ve worked with Steve Bruce, Roberto Martinez, Uwe Rösler... Dave Challinor is right up there. His preparation, his knowledge, his work ethic is incredible.
“He will manage in the Premier League, I have absolutely no doubt. He’s in his early 40s, he’s got loads of time and he will go far.
“We are extremely lucky to have him, he would be so difficult to replace. He epitomises everything that we are, he would probably even cut the pitch if the groundsman wasn’t here.”
Despite the overt pride he has in his football club, Roberts has one important overriding message for football fans everywhere, particularly ahead of Non-League Day, when AFC Fylde host Sutton United at Mill Farm.
“If you don’t come and watch Fylde, please go and watch another non-league team. The feeling you get is so different from the Premier League, or even the Championship.
“It is a great level of football to watch. Working in this environment has massively opened my eyes to the beauty of this different type of football.”